Civil Society Meets the State: A Model of Associational Democracy

International Labour Office Working Paper No. DP/138/2002

23 Pages Posted: 20 Mar 2003

See all articles by Lucio Baccaro

Lucio Baccaro

International Institute for Labour Studies

Date Written: 2002


At a time in which the state is in disrepute, civil society is often proposed as an alternative. In advanced countries, the crisis of dirigiste policy-making has spurred reflections on the role of social actors in the conception and execution of public policy. In developing countries, private associations are touted as an alternative to state-led. In all countries, uniform state solutions imposed to an increasingly heterogeneous mass of citizens, firms, and local economies are regarded with scepticism. In these changing circumstances, the relationship between civil society and the state is often one of competition. Civil society organizations are perceived to be intrinsically more dynamic, innovative, and efficient than state structures - marred by inflexibility, outmoded practices, and rent-seeking behaviour of state bureaucrats. It follows from these premises that to restore effectiveness, policy should strive towards less state and more civil society. This paper takes issue with simplistic views of inefficient state and efficient civil society as well as undifferentiated accounts of civil society that do not distinguish among particular associations and their qualitative features. Drawing on recent literatures, it outlines a model of 'associational democracy' in which state and civil society organizations are both part of a single, new regulatory framework that transforms both. In this new regulatory framework the state no longer dictates regulatory outcomes from the above in 'command-and-control' fashion. The key idea in the model is the devolution of many regulatory functions to local groups and associations with detailed knowledge of problems and possible solutions, extensive monitoring capacities, and the potential to deliberate about generalizable as opposed to purely sectional interests. The state does not wither away in this new model but does new things. Besides defining the basic goals of public policy, it selects the social actors participating in policy (based on their potential contribution), encourages the organization of underrepresented interests, establishes minimal standards of performance, favours circulation of information and best practices among locales, and reserves the right to intervene in case self-regulation fails. With minimum standards and reporting obligations, this regulatory model is far from voluntaristic. While broadly sympathetic with the associational democratic agenda, this paper seeks to introduce greater doses of realism in the abstract, normative model. It does that by discussing three themes in particular: the difference between membership-based and non-membership based organizations, the relationship between associational democracy and corporatism, and the relationship between deliberation - a crucial element in the normative model - and bargaining. Since not all groups are membership-based, legitimation problems arise when groups whose mandate to speak for particular constituencies is unclear are granted access to the public policy sphere. Also, while corporatism and associational democracy proceed from very different normative and empirical assumptions (the assumptions of the former being less appealing than those of the latter), many real-world examples of associational democracy develop around a very solid corporatist core. Finally, real actors rarely deliberate; they bargain. Yet, this is a kind of bargaining that retains many attractive features of deliberation itself, like truthful communication and problem solving orientation, while falling short of the full array of normative preconditions. The remainder of the paper is divided in three parts. The first lays out the associational democratic programme in abstract form. The second discusses the portions of this programme that, in my opinion, need clarification. The third and final provides some examples, based on the Irish experience, to show that the associational democratic model may already be shaping the self-perception of policy-makers.

Keywords: decent work, lucio baccaro, baccaro, civil society meets the State: A model of associational democracy, civil society

Suggested Citation

Baccaro, Lucio, Civil Society Meets the State: A Model of Associational Democracy (2002). International Labour Office Working Paper No. DP/138/2002, Available at SSRN: or

Lucio Baccaro (Contact Author)

International Institute for Labour Studies ( email )

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